I thought I'd share some of the things I know and learned about running a large-scale, epic plot for anyone out there who might be interested in doing the same. It's a very rewarding thing to do, but it takes a lot of work, and there's a lot that can go wrong if you're not looking for it. I hope this will come in handy for anyone considering running their own plot.
What is a Plot?
I might be the only one who uses this term this way, so my apologies if it's confusing! I call it a plot when a bunch of roleplaying characters are all involved in a common storyline. However, what differentiates your everyday roleplay from a plot is a good question too.
I guess it's a matter of scale. Everyone has storylines and character arcs and events going on. However, when the impact starts to be greater than a single character's development, it starts to be more... a plot, like a story has. It's when guilds rise or fall. It's when worlds are threatened. It's when things are changed forever.
In free-form roleplay, as is customary on WoW, such plots can only be successful with competent direction. Otherwise, people will run around doing their own thing and no cohesive story will really take shape, or, worst case scenario, things go south and people end up unhappy with the story that does happen. Thus, a plot requires a GM, or game master, like in tabletop RPGs, to provide guidance and keep the story going in the right direction. But since it is free-form, players must agree to participate; no one can be forced into accepting guidance. Remember that any authority a GM has is endowed by the players and can be revoked by the same.
GMing can be very, very rewarding. However, it's not easy. There are various requirements and challenges you should consider before you start up your own plot.
Time & Scale
First of all, I should warn you that it's extremely time-consuming. I spent several hours a day, every day, for three months on Eclipse. This included reading RP posts, writing my own RP posts, updating the summary and thread list, planning and coordinating events and plot points (I actually had to beg to get my PM limit increased on both TNG and Sanctum), chatting in the Eclipse group and channel to keep tabs on how everyone is doing, and, last but far from least, actual in-game roleplay. It's not for the already-busy if you want to run a plot on this scale.
That said, not every plot needs to be so intense. You can run a plot that doesn't necessarily take center stage at a much more relaxed pace, which would also not necessarily draw in as many players, making it smaller and easier to manage. There are pros and cons to both, one of the considerations definitely being burnout if you go for something epic – and not just of the GM, but the players, too. But of course, there's something to be said for big and intense!
Either way, having regular events, and an ending in mind, is crucial to keeping a plot from drying up. This includes a target end date, though you may need to multiply however long you think it's going to run by about 1.5 if experience shows right. <_< But do ensure the plot always keeps progressing, and know when it's time for it to come to an end so that other stories can have their chance in the spotlight.
Laying the Groundwork
Another thing to note was that it was extremely helpful to have guidelines written up that included OOC expectations. I pretty much didn't have to stop and explain to anyone that Eclipse included non-canon content and that as a GM I would need to be allowed to take liberties upon occasion, except those who encountered the plot in-game. People knew what they were signing up for already or I was ready to let them know right away.
But I did have to think about ahead of time what people would need to be prepared to accept that wouldn't normally come up in day-to-day roleplay. Then, I had to be ready to ensure randomly encountered players understood that, and acquire their consent before proceeding in anything that would affect them. (Pro tip: a character who can just disappear at will is super handy.)
One example is an earlier-on scene where a fight broke out in Warspear involving several characters against Vionora. Before the fight began, I acquired the consent of one player who had not formally volunteered for the plot in order to allow Vionora to be overpowered, and then also explained to a bystander who started watching that all players involved had agreed that my character could kick ass for the purposes of the greater story.
Speaking of fighting, there was one thing I had to add to the guidelines partway through the plot, and that was how to handle combat. This can be a fraught issue in any kind of roleplay anywhere, including on WoW, so it's important to make expectations clear. While it may be impossible to please everyone, presenting an arbitrated option can help. As GM, you can take it out of the players' hands, which is invaluable in keeping tensions diffused.
If you do decide to use an arbitrated system, the most important thing is being flexible, so as to ensure all players have fun and feel awesome. Also, I wouldn't suggest trying to arbitrate a group of larger than 10 or so. Lessons learned! Feel free to borrow the Eclipse combat system if you like and modify it to suit your own tastes.
Just remember, when you start to lay the groundwork, that most of the time, people do whatever they like when it comes to their roleplay... so if you have something specific in mind that you want your players to respect, you'll have to ensure they know what's expected of them and consent to it before you proceed. That means you need to sit down and work out exactly what you're going to ask of your players ahead of time.
Setting the Tone
The OOC guidelines should also include conduct expectations for all players. I was fortunate to only have the very best participants, but the guidelines helped set the tone to attract those people: positive, mature, collaborative, and inclusive. Keep this tone not just in your OOC guidelines, but in your OOC conversations!
Positive: Phrase things in only the most positive way ("let's do X!" rather than "don't do Y!"), and it will really pay off with the excitement and willingness you'll receive in return.
Mature: Just state the obvious. Hopefully, most people won't need to hear it, but it will be reassuring to hear that you as the GM expect people to do things like be able to work out their differences. Do remember to be positive here!
Collaborative: Try to keep a default answer of "sure!" and stay away from letting slip the "I dunno..." In the end, a little bit of inconsistency is totally worth players feeling like their ideas are wanted and valued. The story doesn't have to be perfect and completely without plot holes. Don't try to make it; be easy instead. People will be happier and that's what will make the plot successful.
It's really about letting the players contribute. Ask players what they want out of the plot, what sort of challenges they want their character to face, and what they think would be interesting for their character to do. Just asking really facilitates collaboration.
Inclusive: Do your best to reach out to everyone and actively draw them into the plot. Whenever someone showed some interest, I made sure to speak to them personally and suggest ways to get involved. And whenever I hadn't heard from someone in awhile, I reached out to find out how they were doing and if there was anything I could do to ensure they were having a good time and felt involved – and wanted.
With something like a plot, an activity people are participating in, it's far too easy for some to get left by the wayside. It may happen even if you mean well; trust me, a lot can be going on and it's hard to stay on top of it all. I know I didn't do a perfect job, despite how much effort I put into it. But it's important to be proactive and considerate, especially for those who aren't so good at involving themselves. The moment it becomes a clique is the moment it stops being a good plot.
GMs are only human and they're bound to make mistakes. I know I did with Eclipse. But if you keep your eye on the prize, and the prize is everyone having a wonderful time, it's very possible to be successful in that. Put people being happy ahead of telling exactly the story you wanted to tell, or being the center of attention, or ignoring the problems, and you'll be happy you did – and so will everyone else.